Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a new anthology series from Netflix. Much like The Twilight Zone, in which Rod Serling introduced every episode, del Toro prefaces each of the eight instalments with his own distinctive style.

At the end of each introduction he gives the name of the episode and the name of the director.

This is important.

Because this is a director’s show.. Unlike the original Twilight Zone, which was predominantly a writer driven show, Cabinet of Curiosities puts the emphasis on style over substance. Del Toro, a director himself, gives his fellow directors free reign to tell each story the way they want.

One might say they are indulged, which is why some episodes feel like they go on too long and tend to get bogged down in cinematography and art direction, so much so that many of the stories move at a leisurely pace, or tend to wander around rather than finding a true narrative structure.

Having said that, I did enjoy watching all of the episodes. but only a few really stand out.

The opening episode, Lot 36, is a rather pedestrian tale of and odious man who comes into possession of a storage unit containing occult artifacts. The episode is written by Regina Corrado and Guillermo del Toro and it is based on a short story by  del Toro. It has some nice touches, but the right wing xenophobia of the main character is so underscored at every moment, it’s hard not to see the end coming from a mile away.

The only saving grace is Tim Blake Nelson playing the xenophobe. He makes the most of the part, as he does with almost every part he plays and watching an actor at the top of his game (as Blake most decidedly is) work is a delight no matter how odious the part he plays may be. The monster (and every episode has some sort of monster in it) is also quite good.

Graveyard Rats, sadly, does not feature any outstanding performances. David Hewlett is not able to rise to the demands of the material as the main character, a desperate grave robber named Masson. The script is based on a story by Henry Kuttner and, despite a somewhat impressive giant rat and an animated legless corpse, is rather pedestrian. It would have not been out of place in an old EC comic book.

The Autopsy, however, is a real standout. Very impressively directed by David Prior and with a gold standard performance by F. Murray Abraham as the pathologist, this story of an alien parasite manages to terrify as well as present a very clever twist ending. Screenwriter David S. Goyer does a bang-up job interpreting the original story by Michael Shea.

The Outside is an exercise in directorial indulgence. Kate Micucci, Martin Starr and Dan Stevens give performances that threaten to go over the top (especially with the very unsettling contact lenses that Micucci’s character wears through most of the episode) but are just restrained enough to be worthy of note. This one went on much too long overall. Even individual scenes could have ended long before they finally did cut to the next.

Episodes five and six are both based on stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Pickman’s Model is a stylish adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s most well known stories, and casting Cripin Glover as Pickman seems to be an inspired choice, despite his very odd Brooklyn accent. Again, style wins out over substance as the story meanders through several set pieces which, although very chilling, don’t seem to amount to much. The creature revealed at the end, however, is very well done.

Dreams in the Witch House, very loosely adapted from the well known Lovecraft tale, is similarly overwrought. Rupert Grint (best known as Ron Weasely from the Harry Potter movies) plays Walter Gilman, a tortured man who has dedicated his life to piercing the veil between the living and the dead to try to find his long dead twin sister. The story meanders here as well, though the witch, Keziah Mason and her familiar, Brown Jenkin, are so well done as effects I could almost forgive the turgid pace at which the story unfolds.

The Viewing, the second to last episode, is terribly self indulgent. Set in 1979, the story features a group of extraordinary minds, talents from various fields, who are gathered together by a wealthy collector (Peter Weller) to view an object. In this segment director Panos Cosmatos takes his sweet time getting to the crux of the story, choosing to dwell on the late ’70’s aesthetic. Here there is literal indulgence as the characters drink, smoke and snort a variety of designer drugs before Weller’s character finally says: “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here.” After 38 minutes I’d begun to lose interest. What follows is gory and somewhat creepy, but not really worth the time it took to get there.

The final episode, The Murmuring, is a genuinely excellent ghost story. Superbly acted by Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln, this short feature film (and, indeed, it did feel like a very well done feature) takes its time with an old fashioned haunted house tale. Based on a short story by del Toro. this episode is excellently executed, though after the brobdingnagian and effects heavy episodes that preceded it, I would not be surprised if more than a few viewers doze off during it. Despite the lack of dripping blood and monster puppets, there are some very genuinely creepy moments and more than one jump scare.

The Murmuring is, hands down, the finest of the lot, though, personally, I would have to give The Autopsy the Gold Star for the win.

Do I recommend the series? Certainly if you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films you will find much to interest you here. But the show is best viewed the way that you would examine an actual cabinet of curiosities. These items have many drawers and compartments and each contains items that draw you in, enchant or repulse you in equal measure.

As with an actual cabinet of curiosities, it’s best to take your time with it and not be anxious to race to the finish line.

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